Portraits of Christ: An Introduction to the Gospels

By Alonzo Miller

Essay miller
In his essay, Alonzo Miller ’08 takes one passage from the Gospel of Matthew — the Beatitudes — and examines it as one portion of the gospel writer’s portrait of Christ.

The assignment was part of a theology and religious studies course designed to introduce students of all faiths to the historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation that examine the history of the Bible itself.

“I have always held the Gospel of Matthew in high esteem, not only as a person of faith, but also as a student of great literature,” Miller wrote in a commentary published alongside his essay. “I gained valuable insight into the many historical and literary components present within this sacred text and, as a result, have broadened my perspective of the gospels in light of contemporary research.”

THE BEATITUDES OF THE GOSPEL of Mathew contain some of the most dearly cherished tenets held by Christians and are admired by multitudes of great men and women of every faith and those of no faith alike. Many view the Beatitudes as a perfected model of living—a set of characteristics and traits to aspire. Others, more adherent to classical notions of faith, see the Beatitudes as prophetic and purely eschatological, pointing the way of Jesus and His second coming. These interpretations, however plausible, were not necessarily those of the originally intended audience for whom Matthew attempts to write. As we continue on in our close examination of Matthew and his Beatitudes, we will encounter a variety of viewpoints held by Matthew and the Christian and Jewish communities of his day that will serve to enlighten and possibly enhance the application of these treasured passages into our daily lives.

The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament and is one of the four Gospels included in the Christian canon. It is considered to be a synoptic book as it bears close resemblance to the Gospels of Luke and Mark, from which the latter, it is hypothesized, to have explicitly borrowed. Early church leaders came to a consensus as to Matthean priority and dated the Gospel between 50 and 65 C.E. Today, however, a large body of modern scholars attributes a much later date of 75 to 85 C.E. primarily based upon the book’s content and sources. The discourse and tension between Jews and Gentiles that resonates throughout the Gospel would indicate that the work was produced after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 C.E. This interpretation would be probable considering the Gospel’s theme and structure, which revolves around the concept of Jesus fulfilling messianic prophecies and ushering in a new covenant for Israel and the world. In addition to the Gospel’s content as testimony to a later date of authorship, many secular theologians find large portions of Matthew to be extremely comparable, if not, identical to the Gospel of Mark and, therefore, theorize that Mark was a source, along with other hypothetical documents such as “Q” and “M,” upon which to draw for Matthew. This reading would, of course, place Matthew’s authorship at a later date than that proposed by early Christian tradition.

Just as church tradition almost unanimously ascribed Matthean priority to the Christian canon, in what appears to be in error, tradition also attributed authorship to Matthew, former tax collector and apostle of Christ. Recent scholarship, however, calls Matthean authorship into question based upon a variety of factors including the written language of the text, the sources used in formation of the Gospel, Matthean interpretation of Hebrew verse, and a general paucity of information characteristic with an eyewitness account.

The literary form of Matthew appears to be that of an ancient biography as it exhibits many features consistent with similar Greco-Roman documents of antiquity. The little emphasis on character development, the lack of report of historical events, and the centrality of plot action in relation to the main character, are some among many qualities evident in the Gospel.[1]

Matthew’s theological focus may perhaps be summarized in verse 4:17 which reads, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling the ancient Hebrew prophecies of the coming Messiah and the subsequent establishment of His Kingdom. Christ is depicted as a new Moses of sorts, who has come to bring forth a deeper and more enlightened interpretation and understanding of the Law. Accordingly, Matthew structures his Gospel into five distinct sections that appear to be modeled after the five books of the Torah. Matthew’s emphasis on the transitional nature of Jesus Christ, carrying ancient Judaism into the messianic age, reflects his intention to address the concerns of the Jewish-Christians engaged in debate with the rabbinical Jews over the nature of Christ and the future of post second-temple Judaism.

Jewish Nature of Matthew
One possible reason why early church leaders ascribed so dearly to Matthean priority was the apparent Jewish nature of Matthew, both in its form and content. It would be logical to begin the New Testament with Matthew in this sense since it would adhere well to the Hebrew scriptures and set the tone for the transition from Judaism to Christianity.

Matthew begins with a long and detailed genealogy of Jesus, spanning fourteen generations, which includes David, former King of Israel, and Abraham, father of the Hebrews. It is clear the intention is to place the birth of Jesus in a messianic light. The symbolic use of the number fourteen also has many Jewish ramifications. The number seven has traditionally been seen as perfect and divine in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, with many allusions being made to the creation account in Genesis, as well as the establishment of the Sabbath, and the year of Jubilee. The fact that Jesus’ genealogy crosses fourteen generations makes his birth doubly perfect since fourteen is twice seven.[2]

Perhaps the most Jewish attribute to the Gospel of Matthew is his use of the five-fold model, found throughout the Torah and Hebrew Bible.[3]  This format is used by David in Psalms, Solomon in Proverbs, Jeremiah in Lamentations and Jeremiah, and most noticeably by Moses in his composition of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, or what has become known as the Torah. Matthew’s utility of this literary form is effective in it’s applicability to the Gospel’s immediate audience and their ongoing struggle to unite their belief in Christ and the Hebrew faith of their past.

The Five Books of Matthew
As stated earlier, the Gospel of Matthew is divided into five distinct sections or books, each having their own thesis. The first book (Mt. 3-7) to comprise the five-fold structure of Matthew includes the “Sermon on the Mount,” which appears in chapters 5-7. This exhortative lecture primarily grapples with personal and societal morality as the Kingdom of God approaches. Many Christians liken the sermon to a treatise and commentary on the Ten Commandments found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The second book of Matthew concerns itself with Jesus’ public ministry and the missionary trajectory assigned to His twelve apostles (Mt. 8-10). It is in this section of Matthew that many of the miracles performed by Jesus are recorded. In the third book, opposition begins to arise among the ruling religious class of Israel and Jesus is implicated in several controversies (Mt. 11-13:52). A discourse concerning Christian fellowship forms the fourth book of Matthew (Mt. 13:52-18) while the fifth book narrates Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and includes Jesus’ discussion of His second coming and the end of age (Mt. 19-25).

The Beatitudes
Following the genealogy of Jesus, the birth narrative, and John’s baptism of Christ, comes the “Sermon on the Mount,” which appears in the first book of Matthew. The sermon begins with what church tradition has entitled “The Beatitudes,” a term derived from the Latin, beatitudo, which translates to “happiness.”[4]  The original Greek, makarios, imparts a heightened definition of the term.[5]  Rather than just a state of temporal joy, makarios suggests an internal contentedness that is unaffected by one’s physical circumstances. Considering the pretext to this section of Matthew, scholars and laymen alike agree that the Beatitudes seems to describe a basic set of traits, if you will, for those dwelling in the Kingdom of God—a template for Christian living. Instead of issuing commandments as Moses did, Jesus presents His Beatitudes as declarative statements of character. Interestingly, the Beatitudes take upon an antithetical formula, deliberately inverting standard values in order to create attention and inner contemplation. There is disagreement as to the actual number of Beatitudes presented in the text, but most of the scholarly community believe there only to be eight. Four of the Beatitudes present in Matthew’s Gospel also appear in alternative form in Luke’s Sermon on the Pain (Mt. 3:3, 3:4, 3:6, 3:10; K. 6:20, 6:21, 2:22). Unlike Matthew, however, Luke presents four woes to follow his Beatitudes. Theologians theorize that Matthew, in an effort to maintain the eightfold structure, a literary form prevalent in Jewish literature, added four additional sayings to his Beatitudes.[7]  The fact that both Matthew and Luke appear to contain fairly identical statements in each of their sermons, helps support the hypothesis that such statements originated from the hypothetical document entitled “Q.”[8]  

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit (Mt. 5:3)
Jesus’ first Beatitude begins with an address to the poor in spirit. The ambiguity of this statement may seem puzzling at first glance. Indeed, without proper reference, one may have understood Jesus to be speaking of those experiencing physical or psychological distress.[9]  It appears that the blessing was a variation of sorts on Isa. 55:1-2. The phrase “poor in spirit” is in fact analogous to ‘nwy rwh found in I QM xiv.7 of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which may be translated to “the humble poor who trust in God’s help.”[10]  This would indicate that Jesus intended not to speak to those who were poor in a material sense, but to those in a spiritual state of recognition of their need and reliance on God. The Greek word ptohos is used by Matthew as an aggregate of the Hebrew wordsani (poor, afflicted) and anaw (humble) which are collectively used in this Beatitude in the formanawim.[11]  The term anawim appears throughout the Hebrew Bible and had a well understood meaning. Perhaps Matthew deliberately chose to utilize the Jewish connotation in his construction of the Beatitude because he knew the audience would immediately recognize the language.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Mt. 5:4)
This Beatitude, when examined in light of Hebrew scripture, appears to have great messianic meaning. The term mourn (from Greek, oi penthountes) appears to be an allusion to Isa. 61:2-3 wherein mourners in Zion are secured of the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise of salvation.[12]  The second half of this Beatitude describes a promise of being comforted. The Greek term for comfort (parakaleo) in usage in this verse had a very clear and distinct messianic connotation as Jews of Matthew’s day understood Menahhem or Paraclete to directly mean Comforter.[13]  St. John Chrysostom best summarizes the implied message conveyed in this passage of Matthew: “And again, in this Beatitude, Christ doesn’t speak of those who weep for any kind of causes, but those who weep for their sins. Any other kind of weeping is strictly forbidden, like crying for earthly goods.”[14]

Blessed Are the Meek (Mt. 5:5)
Matthew chose to draw from Psalms in this passage, specifically verse 37:11 wherein the exiled Israelites, forced out of their land by the Babylonians, are told to exhibit a calm and faithful patience in the Lord in the face of their own internal fury.[15] Erik Kolbell provides a comprehensive definition for meekness that greatly aides in the interpretation of this section of the Beatitude: “[...] Biblical meekness is quiet perseverance in the face of brute rage; it is our staunch refusal either to lay down in submission or rise up in violence before those forces that oppress us.”[16]  The second portion of this Beatitude describes the reward for such faith-filled steadfastness. For the Israelites, “inherit the earth” would imply the possession of Eretz Israel; however, when Jesus makes this statement to the multitudes in Matthew, it becomes clear that the inheritance is a reference to the later penned description of the “new earth” described in Rev. 21:1 by John.[17]  Eretz Israel becomes the ontological model upon which Christ designs His “new earth” at the end of age and those who are meek shall inherit it.

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger (Mt. 5:6)
It is here that Matthew clearly attempts to transcend the physical state of hunger and thirst by adding the words “after righteousness” to his Beatitude.[18]  God is quoted throughout the Hebrew scriptures as promising to feed His people and care for their earthly needs. It is in fact His will. Jews of Matthew’s day would have certainly understood this and would have seen the connection to this Matthean Beatitude and their own sacred scriptures. Matthew, however, goes further that just the promise of physical nourishment; he attempts to convey a spiritual state of satisfaction and satiation. Matthew did not invent this theological view, but rather borrowed it from Ps. 9:8-9 wherein the term righteousness (tsedeq in Hebrew) is expounded upon and the phrase “hunger and thirst” is paired with the word “oppressed” (dak in Hebrew).[19]  The Psalter states that the oppressed shall find refuge in Yahweh, of which righteousness is certainly an attribute. Matthew transferred the deep spiritual meaning of this passage into his Beatitude and made it accessible to the masses.

Blessed Are The Merciful (Mt. 5:7)
Mercy was a familiar item of importance in rabbinical Judaism. Hebrews saw mercy as an action in relation to righteousness along with fasting and prayer.[20]  John Paul II best describes the dualistic sentiment Jews imbued upon the term in Dives in Misericordia, an encyclical written in 1980 by himself:

First there is the term hesed, which indicates a profound attitude of “goodness.” When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. Since hesed also means “grace” or “love,” this occurs precisely on the basis of this fidelity. [...] When in the Old Testament the word hesed is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. [...] The second word which in the terminology of the Old Testament serve to define mercy is rahamim. This has a different nuance from that of hesed. While hesed highlights the marks of fidelity to self and of “responsibility for one’s own love” (which are in a certain sense masculine characteristics), rahamim, in its very root, denotes the love of a mother (rehem = mother’s womb). From the deep and original bond—indeed the unity—that links a mother to her child there springs a particular relationship to the child, a particular love. Of this love one can say that it is completely gratuitous, not merited, and that in this aspect it constitutes an interior necessity: an exigency of the heart.[21]

Here, John Paul II points out the masculine and feminine aspects of mercy that work in relation to each other and are to be united. John Paul II continues to extrapolate on mercy and states: “It becomes more evident that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice—precise and often too narrow.” And, again: “Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serve love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy.”[22]  What John Paul II brilliantly points out is that mercy is a form of love expressed interhumanly to those in states of need. This principle is the centerpiece of Matthew’s Beatitude.

Blessed Are the Pure in Heart (Mt. 5:8)
Matthew’s sixth Beatitude seems to allude to Ps. 24:3-4 wherein those “pure in heart” are given access to God’s presence.[23]   This “purity of heart” is not ritual or ceremonial, as one must have been in order to enter the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to preside, according to Israelites.[24]  A “pure heart” referred to a spiritual cleanliness of the mind. In the Aramaic Approach, Matthew Black states that the phrase “pure in heart” in Aramaic, dake leb, shares a close consonant relationship to dakike leb, which in Aramaic is equivalent to the Hebrew nisbre leb, translated in English to “broken-hearted.”[25]   This Aramaism lends a new view to this Matthean Beatitude; not only must one be “pure in heart” to see God, but also contrite. The “seeing of God” is typically interpreted eschatologically and refers to Christ’s second coming.[26]

Blessed Are the Peacemakers (Mt. 5:9)
The existential state of “peace” was and remains to be an important attribute in Jewish religion and culture. The Hebrew term for peace, shalom, is still used by contemporary Jews today as a salutation and is included in the latter portion of the Levitic benediction, perhaps as a reminder of how desirable such a state of being is. Catholic liturgy has also lent itself over to a salutatory blessing of peace as demonstrated in the Pax vobiscum (i.e. “Peace be with you”).[27]  Because peace was generally regarded as a blessing to the Hebrews, this Beatitude has clear connotations to the messianic age in which a dramatic transfiguration of the earth would come about by peace. The word “peacemaker” denotes the activity of peacemaking. As to what exactly are the activities of a peacemaker are left up to what seems personal interpretation. In that vein, good arguments for just war theory as well as pacifism have and continue to be made.

Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted (Mt. 5:10)
It is in this last Beatitude of Matthew that the “kingdom of heaven” is referred to once again, creating a beautiful, poetic structure to the text and reiterating the central theme of the pericope. Persecution is a result of the quest for the righteousness of God.[28]  Matthew’s audience knew of the pains of persecution quite well after experiencing the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Righteousness was viewed as a requirement for salvation, as demonstrated in a number of Hebrew scriptures, particularly those of Proverbs (Prov. 11:19; 12:28).[29]  In this passage of Matthew, persecution is paired against righteousness. The two existential states are in exclusive. In order for one to occur, so too must the other. Perhaps the best example of this Beatitude in action is Jesus Himself. Radically in pursuit of God’s righteousness, Jesus’ faith was refined and purified, necessary for the attainment of righteousness and an entrance requirement into God’s kingdom.

Discipleship According to Matthew
For Matthew, the Beatitudes represented much more than a set of traits or characteristics representative of believers in Christ. It was a treatise on keeping the testimonies of God. Matthew’s focus continually throughout his Gospel is the presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah. His intentional modeling of his Gospel into a five-fold structure, his genealogy linking Christ to familiar and honored Hebrew patriarchs, his birth narrative which mirrors that of Moses, are all crafted in a fashion to imply that Jesus is in fact the Prophet of Prophets and is the Jewish Messiah promised in the scriptures. All this foreshadows the Beatitudes, which then appear to be part of a commentary or Midrash, if you will, on the Ten Commandments. Matthew was attempting to reignite an impassioned “living out” of the Law as foretold by Moses in antiquity. Instead of creating new rules and regulations to abide by, Jesus is depicted as ushering in a new covenant that is based on the spirit of the Law already in place rather than a strict following of the letter. Matthew’s references to the “kingdom of heaven” were mainly eschatological in view of his audience. It would take another 20 and some odd years for the Gospel of John to come along and expound upon this rather complicated and profound concept.

Conclusion
The Beatitudes of the Gospel of Matthew have been treasured by Christians for centuries and are considered to be central tenets of the faith. Revered by scores of religious leaders and philosophers of every persuasion, these eight simple verses provide a clear moral compass upon which individuals may guide their lives. How we interpret these time honored passages and live them out in our own day is, in fact, the challenge. Today, poverty remains rampant and maintains itself in our faulty political systems, fueling vast despair and hopelessness from generation to generation; wars continue to be waged and fought with little case or cause; persecution, religious or otherwise, perpetuates with senseless genocide occurring with little intervention. Even now, in these contemporary times, the world shows a need for the attributes and traits purveyed in the Beatitudes, stated in simple words by Erik Kolbell: surrender, empathy, patience, self-denial, contrition, sanctification, wholeness, and lastly, but conceivably most important, courage.[30] 

 

Notes

  1. Bart Erhman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 63.
  2. Ibid., 95.
  3. Jack Hayford, Spirit-Filled Life Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1401-1404.
  4. David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 109.
  5. Ibid., 110.
  6. Jack Hayford, Spirit-Filled Life Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1410.
  7. Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982).
  8. Bart Erhman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 87.
  9. Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2003), 27.
  10. David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 111.
  11. Ibid., 110-111.
  12. James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991).
  13. David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 111.
  14. St. John Chrysostom, The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. (J. H. Parker, 1843).
  15. Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2003), 58.
  16. Ibid., 59.
  17. David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 112.
  18. Ibid., 112.
  19. Jack Hayford, Spirit-Filled Life Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1410.
  20. Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. (London, England:MacMillan, 1909), 202.
  21. Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia: Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II. (Catholic Truth Society, 1980), 52.
  22. Ibid.
  23. David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 113.
  24. Ibid., 113
  25. Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts. 3rd ed. (Hendrickson Publishing, 1998), 158.
  26. David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981), 113.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., 113-114.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Erik Kolbell, What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2003).

Bibliography

  • Mt. 5:3-11 (New American Bible).
  • Black, Matthew. An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts. 3rd ed. Hendrickson Publishing, 1998.
  • Chrysostom, John, St. The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. J. H. Parker, 1843.
  • Davis, Kenneth. “The Mission of the Beatitudes.” Emmanuel 107, no. 8 (2001): 460-462.
  • Erhman, Bart. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Gundry, Robert. Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.
  • Hayford,Jack. Spirit-Filled Life Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
  • Hill, David. New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981.
  • Mt. 5:3-11 (New International Version).
  • Mt. 5:3-11 (King James Version).
  • Mt. 5:3-11 (New King James Version).
  • Mt. 5:3-11 (New Jerusalem Bible).
  • Paul II, John, Pope. Dives in Misericordia: Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II. Catholic Truth Society, 1980.
  • Kolbell, Erik. What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2003.
  • Luomanen, Petri. Entering the Kingdom of Heaven: A Study on the Structure of Matthew’s View of Salvation. Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1998.
  • Mt. 5:3-11 (The Message).
  • Olson, Carl. “Living the Beatitudes.” Our Sunday Visitor 95, no. 42 (2007): 24.
  • Schechter, Solomon . Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. London, England:MacMillan, 1909.
  • Strong, James. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.
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